Once we know we are loved, it is easy to choose joy.
This is what Father Greg Boyle, SJ, learned as he has ministered to ex-gang members in Los Angeles. His ministry, Homeboy Industries, transforms these men and women with the healing power of God’s love and grace.
Growing up in Los Angeles, I’ve interacted with some of the men and women that Fr. Boyle has served—men and women who outwardly, with their telltale tattoos that mark gang affiliation, jail time, and even murder, looked like the gang members that harassed and intimidated the streets of East L.A., where I used to live. But these people were changed by the power of the Holy Spirit. They were soft. Kind. Gentle.
One man worked as a maintenance man at the building where I lived. He wore baggy pants and had teardrop tattoos on his face, but each morning, he greeted people with, “Peace be with you,” and, “I’m thanking God for another day to be alive.” There was a sweetness in him that the rest of us did not carry. I later learned he was one of Fr. Greg’s homies. He knew what it felt like to be forgiven—for much—and had a joy that could only be explained as supernatural.
Fr. Greg explains this joy in his new book, Forgive Everyone Everything:
It is precisely because we so fundamentally doubt that we are worthy of love that we find it difficult to traverse the terrain of our vulnerability so that we can choose joy. This is the gentle soft spot that can reach across and connect finally with the other, to make the shift from protected heart to vulnerability. The homies discover tenderness as their weapon of choice. To be grounded in our “tenderoni” self is to know that we will endlessly struggle with our worthiness to be loved. Turns out, this is a necessary ingredient to being courageously tender with other people and is the door that opens to joy.
I can only imagine the kind of life that leads one to turn to gangs, drugs, hate, murder, or prison for self-worth. But when I think of how these men and women are transformed after the love of the Gospel, I can only think of all those whom Jesus spent his time with: prostitutes, tax collectors, and those on the margins of society. I think of how these were transformed by his love into the greatest of his followers. Love moved them toward vulnerability and vulnerability to joy.
Fr. Greg uses the language of the street when he calls tenderness “their weapon of choice.” After years of being on the defensive, his homies arm themselves with tenderness.
Be tender with others as God is tender with us.
We too, like Fr. Greg’s homies, can choose joy.